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I was wearing a pro-Palestinian T-shirt; he was wearing a yarmulke. As we sat at the airport waiting for the same flight, he glanced at my shirt and asked me to turn so he could read the message: “Palestine — 50 years of dispossession, 1948-1998” a shirt produced during Israel’s 50th anniversary. He scowled, and we began talking.
I tried to make sure that two fundamental facts were not lost in the discussion: The ethnic cleansing of about 700,000 Palestinians in 1948, driven from their homes by the Israelis during the birth of that nation that year; and Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, captured during the 1967 war. He said Arabs want to destroy Israel, and therefore Israel’s attacks on Palestinians are justified. We challenged each other’s facts and interpretations. He invoked God; I cited international law. It was tense, but civil.
Then he suggested that one solution would be for all the Palestinians to leave and settle in other Arab lands — the “let them go live with their own kind” answer. Often called “transfer” or the “Sharon plan,” it was once considered absurd by all but the most reactionary forces in Israel; now it’s increasingly being taken seriously in Israel and the United States.
On the surface, it seems simple to many: The Gaza Strip and West Bank are relatively small parcels of land — why fight over them? Why can’t Palestinians just resettle in other Arab nations? If their Arab brothers and sisters truly cared, wouldn’t they take them in?
I offered the man in the airport an analogy. I’m originally from North Dakota, I explained. Let’s say that the Canadians swept down into North Dakota after a border dispute and captured territory during a war. After occupying the land for decades and settling Canadians in the most desirable spots and taking most of the water, let’s imagine the Canadians were to suggest that a solution would be for North Dakotans — those still living in North Dakota under Canadian military occupation and those in exile or refugees — to relocate to South Dakota.
I no longer live in North Dakota, but I can say with confidence that the people there would not pack their bags and accept such a “solution.” They would resist, as people anywhere would. Some would choose nonviolent strategies, but I suspect a fair number would take up arms. The man in the airport glared at me and said, “You’re a racist.”
I don’t know what took him from my analogy to that accusation, but it’s easy to speculate he was projecting his own racism; his contempt for Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, was palpable. Our discussion ended and we boarded the plane.
I sank into my seat feeling defeated — not because I thought his arguments were better than mine, but because the argument I had made about the humanity of the Palestinians didn’t seem to matter to him. My sense of defeat was not about an argument lost, but about the consequences.
Those consequences are clear: So long as Americans ignore these basic issues about justice, U.S. financial, military, and diplomatic support for Israel will continue. And as long as the United States supports Israeli expansion and aggression, there is no hope for an end to the violence.
As I sat there, I could not escape the knowledge that the burdens of our failures in the United States are borne not by us but by the Palestinians.
Robert Jensen is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective, and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream and the pamphlet “Citizens of the Empire.” He can be reached at email@example.com.